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traveladventurer Jun 6th, 2011 08:57 AM

Pls comment on St. John trip plans
We're a family with teens 16 & 13 who like to snorkel (off-beach preferred). We've snorkeled in Oahu, Big Island, St. Thomas, St. Lucia, Isla Mujeres, Akumal/Tulum, Bermuda and are looking for a good mix of off-beach snorkel sites, some hiking (if it's not too hot) and perhaps island hopping for variety.

We chose St. John for variety of off-beach snorkel sites and hiking trails and will rent a villa/condo so we can self-cater. Would appreciate your travel tips & comments as I firm up vacation plans & activities.

1. We'd like to visit BVI to snorkel and check out their beaches. I hear Virgin Gorda is a must see (for Baths & snorkeling). How realistic is it to expect to visit 2 or 3 other islands while based in St John? Should we limit ourselves to lodging in Cruz Bay area for easiest access to ferries or is most of the south & west side of island lodging fairly accessible?

2. Is there some sort of day trip boat charter that would take us to various islands (other than St. John) for snorkeling? If so, can others share their experience with costs, tour operator, places to go? For instance, Buck Island and/or St. Croix for the day?

3. Doing a self-guided snorkeling trail in the USVI's sounds fun, but does it stand up to expectations? Is it worth it to do to the underwater trails in Buck Island, Cane Bay or Trunk Bay or is the coral pretty much bleached? Most of the snorkeling reviews & recommendations are from 2008 or even a decade earlier so I wonder if anyone with more recent experience can comment.

Thanks in advance for your travel tips!

virginia Jun 6th, 2011 09:49 AM

1. the ferry schedules should help you decide which a/or how many bvi you wish to visit.
2. your family could charter privately. they'll go where you request.
i have taken this tour
we had the best day! they don't take many ppl, the boat is a reconfigured cigarette boat so goes really fast, the service is great, the stops are fun, and you'll end up seeing most of the bvi, at least from a distance, plus stops on 3 islands -
tell the kids there's a place to get ice cream at the soggy dollar stop & soggy dollar shirts in their size 8-)
st. croix is quite a distance.
3. others will have to offer advice on this

not sure where you'll fly to - assume st. thomas. if you need to spend a night on st. thomas for flights i think you might like with nice, huge 2 br condo and excellent snorkeling off their beach.

Kristen1206 Jun 6th, 2011 09:57 AM

Best shore snorkeling that I have encountered or heard about is Hawksnest and Waterlemon Cay.

Check out Palm Tree Charters (private) or Bad Kitty (group). The private will allow you to choose your stops. Good snorkeling spots include The Caves at Norman Island, Peter Island and teh Indians.

Another fun way to hit different snorkel spots around St. John is to rent a dinghy.

brenandg Jun 6th, 2011 11:52 AM

If you take a group charter such as New Horizon's II or Bad Kitty, which go to Virgin Gorda, it will be a relatively short stop with no time for snorkeling at Virgin Gorda. That said, your teens would probably love climbing on the rocks there. Is it a must see? Probably yes, but once was enough for us at least during a charter trip because it takes up much of your day getting there and back. If you really want to spend some time on Virgin Gorda, you might be better off taking the ferry there. St Croix is not doable for the day from St John. You should be fine anywhere on the west/south side of the island for proximity to Cruz Bay and ferry's. I highly recommend Palm Tree Charters if you want to splurge a bit for a day on the water. Capt John is great and you choose where you want to go. If you are not sure, just tell him your expectations and he will make sure you have a great day!!

We have done the New Horizon's trip as well and it is great for an overview of The BVI's. Not that it is particularly rushed, but we much prefer our own charter and have gone on Palm Tree Charters three times.

I am assuming you are talking about Cane Garden Bay, Tortola? It is not really known as a snorkel stop. If you want some great snorkeling off of St John, Capt John (Palm Tree Charters) knows all of the hot spots. As kristen mentioned, The Caves and The Indians are excellent snorkel spots in the BVI's. There is also "Spyglass wall" which my huband and friends thought was the best snorkeling they did. Capt John knows some "secret" spots too. He also videotapes your day at no charge for a souvenior.

As for the snorkeling on St John, alot depends on the weather/visability. As a general rule, if the north shore swells are up, head to the east end of the island. For example, Vie's beach (Hansen Bay), Salt Pond, or Lamesure.

On the north shore, Waterlemon Cay is known for great snorkeling, but you need to be good swimmers because of the currents. Maho is a nice snorkel spot. Last November we saw a ton of ray moseying along the beach. Lots of sea grass for turtle hunting too. The right side of Maho near the rocks is best. Hawksnest has a large Elkhorn coral "forest" right about in the middle. I have not been yet, but our friends also like Francis Bay. Trunk Bay is worth a visit, just for the beauty of it. Not sure that the snorkel trail is the best on the island though. White Bay on Jost Van Dyke is also worth a visit either by private charter or ferry, but not necessarily for snorkeling. It is one of the most beautiful beaches I have been on. If you have any further questions or need dining recommendations, let me know. With the exception of some very stable establishments, restaurants change like the weather on St John. There are some new deli options that sound great for taking a lunch to the beach etc. Seems like the restaurants are trying to offer some more "budget friendly" options in this tired economy.

brenandg Jun 6th, 2011 11:54 AM

P.S. Virginia, I just tried Havavna Blue on STT my last trip. I just stayed on STT for a few days with friends. All I can say is WOW, fabulous dining experience!

traveladventurer Jun 6th, 2011 01:07 PM

Virginia -- Thanks for the ferry schedules. I'll definitely check out the option of taking the ferry to Virgin Gorda for a day at the beach (specifically the Baths), as brenandg suggested. Does one take a taxi from the ferry stop to the beach if we don't have a car and are only there for the day?

I think we'll scratch St. Croix from the island hopping list; sounds like it'll be too far. Is Tortola worth a stop or is it more of the same if we already plan to spend a day in VG?

Brenandg -- I like the idea of a private charter & palmtree charter's fees seem very reasonable for the small group size & being able to plot your own adventure. We'll take a day to do that. We plan to do most of our St. John snorkeling right off the beach, as my 13 yr old doesn't like to be in the water that long so if we're right off the beach he can just walk out when he gets tired while my husband & daughter can happily stay in the water all day. Thanks so much for your detailed snorkel spots & tips. Are most of the beaches easily accessible from where you park the car or do you have to hike in?

Not sure about Cane Bay -- I thought it was mentioned somewhere for a snorkeling trail but I could be wrong. Has anyone done any of the guided/marked underwater trails? Is it worth trying to get to one or are we better off just snorkeling "freestyle", as it were?

Kristen -- Hadn't thought of renting a dinghy. I'm a big paranoid that it'll float away while we're in the water, but willing to give it a try. What beaches & snorkeling locations would you recommend for doing that?

As far as the town on Cruz Bay, is it safe for my 16 yo daughter & 13 yo son to walk to town from our villa (5-10 mins away) and explore on their own? Or are there too many shady types loitering on the street that may freak them out? (Keep in mind we live in an Atlanta suburb, so this isn't something they're accustomed to).

Thanks for the suggestions so far. Keep 'em coming!

traveladventurer Jun 6th, 2011 01:12 PM

P.S. Virginia: We snorkeled off Secret Harbour beach several years ago when we went to St. Thomas. You're right, great location for beach snorkeling! We'll arrive STT at 2 pm so we should have plenty of time to get to St John. I think we'll completely skip the sights at St Thomas this time around :)

How long is the ferry ride from St. Thomas to St John?

brenandg Jun 6th, 2011 01:52 PM

Which villa are you planning on staying? Many advertise walking distance to Cruz Bay, but there are hills to deal with! I think Cruz Bay is very safe, but then again, we are usually in by 11:00pm and not out and about in the wee hours.

This is just my humble opinion, but I wouldn't bother with a day trip to Tortola, especially if you use one day to see the Bath's. I have only been to The Bath's by boat, but I'm pretty sure it is easy to get a taxi from the ferry dock to The Bath's.

Most of the beaches are easy walking distance from the parking but you have to be willing to drag your stuff a bit. We usually travel light to the beaches. Our friends bring half of their condo, LOL. Big Maho has the closest accessability. On the other extreme, Salt Pond has a hot 1/4 mile hike down and then back UP a dirt trail. Little Lameshure was a great find last trip. If you get to that end of the island, The Tourist Trap is a must do for lunch!! Skinny Legs second on the list for a burger. Going to look for my Palm Tree Charters video and post for you.

virginia Jun 6th, 2011 02:12 PM

if you decide to spend a day on virgin gorda - near the baths, you might also enjoy spring beach which is similiar to the baths, but will not get so crowded mid-day when excursions are there. there is a place for lunch at the top of the baths.
yes you can taxi to baths from ferry dock. don't forget your passports.

re ferry st.t to st.j: if from charlotte amalie approx 45 mins. if from red hook approx 20 mins. as you may recall drive from char am to red hook is at least 45 mins so does not save you time to drive to shorter ferry.

brenandg - so glad you enjoyed havana blue! wish i was on my way to dinner there right now. oh heck i'd settle for the blue moon cafe right now... it's been a long trip free winter

brenandg Jun 6th, 2011 02:52 PM

Here is our Palm Tree Charters video

virginia Jun 6th, 2011 03:31 PM

loved the video. thanks for sharing. palm tree looks like a fun tour. loved seeing the soggy dollar.

traveladventurer Jun 6th, 2011 04:44 PM

Brenandg -- Considering Stowaway Villas ( on Cruz Bay or Casa Constant. (How does one add a link, BTW?) If the kids walk down into town, it would be at daytime, not after dusk. Just wanted to know that if they wanted to amuse themselves for a while walking around town, it would be safe. Enjoyed your video--looked like a blast! Reminds me that I need to try on my swimsuit, haha, haven't put it on in a couple years.

Will take your tip and skip Tortola.

Does T-Mobile or ATT cell phone service work in St. John? Spotty in the mountains?

Virginia - thanks for the tip re: ferry at CharAmalie vs Red Hook. A rental owner actually suggested renting the car in St. Thomas where rates are cheaper and taking auto barge to St John. Haven't checked into it yet (not sure it's a big enough cost savings), but if we do that we'd have to take the auto barge from Red Hook. Is a Jeep or other 4WD necessary for the roads?

brenandg Jun 7th, 2011 05:07 AM Here is the link to your first house. Just copy and paste the link. Be sure to ask the owner what his definition of walking disance to town is. That house looks high on the hills, so going down might not be bad, but up not so much. I couldn't find the other house easily without the number. Town is definitely safe enough to walk around during the day.

As for phone service, some years ago, our T Mobile did not work at all. You should call your phone companies. We now have Sprint which works well and I believe our friends have ATT. Even then, service can be spotty in certain areas of the island or you may be warned of roaming charges from the BVI's.

There is an ongoing debate on which is better,renting a car on St Thomas or St John. The is one company (the name escapes me) that won't let you take your rental to St John. And, if something goes wrong with the car, you have to deal with your company being on St Thomas. We find it easier to rent on St John, but that is your decision to make as to what is best for you.

Just FYI, the ferry service from Charlotte Amalie is hit or miss for quite some time now. We always use Red Hook because it is reliable (every hour on the hour) and there is a terminal there where you can have a drink at the bar if you want while you wait. Not sure of the car barge hours. Also, the ferry from Charlotte Amalie leaves right from the dock/waterfront. No shelter if it is raining or sweltering hot.

brenandg Jun 7th, 2011 05:47 AM

Here is your other link. I have always liked the looks of this house too.

You might also look at the Frank Bay area for closer walking distance to town. The hill can be a killer!

wliwl Jun 7th, 2011 06:00 AM

I can't recommend Palm Tree Charters enough. Capt. John is a blast. It isn't cheap, but it's worth EVERY penny. You will have a blast. Book him ahead of time, because he's busy.

I don't know if anybody has mentioned this yet, but renting a dinghy for a day is totally fun. You can rent from Noah's Little Arks. You pack a cooler, throw in all your stuff, and head out. You can pull them up on beaches or moor them. It's really fun.

We went to St. John in April and rented Summer Wind villa. It was fabulous. Your own pool and hot tub. It's a great villa.

Have fun!!!

wliwl Jun 7th, 2011 06:01 AM

BTW - You can friend Palm Tree Charters on Facebook and Capt. John posts everyday where he's going. It can give you a good idea of what the choices are.

wliwl Jun 7th, 2011 06:05 AM

One other thought - If you rent from St. John Rental you can park in their lot when in Cruz Bay. This is HUGE as there is extremely limited parking in town (i.e. none). And yes, you absolutely need AWD.

Re: hikes - One day we were sunburned and decided to hike. We did Reef Bay Trail and it was quite pleasant. There is a beach at the bottom, but it is coral sand and a little tough on the feet. Still it was really pretty.

brenandg Jun 7th, 2011 09:17 AM

I forget to provide you this St John link. On the left hand column you can look up anything from snorkeling, to beaches, to restaurants.

If you do The Reef Bay Hike, you may want to schedule it with The National Park Service. They take you by boat back to Cruz Bay instead of having do do the long, hot trek back up!

brenandg Jun 7th, 2011 11:19 AM

One more thing I forgot to mention. If you take a ferry to The BVI's, it does NOT leave from the ferry dock where you arrive on St John. It is a short walk to the left from the ferry dock across from the National Park Building in the area they call the creek. You get your tickets from a white trailer and it is called Inter Island Boat Services. Bring a pen to fill out your customs forms. They never have any extra ones. Whew, are you sick of me yet? As you can tell, we love St John and have made nine trips since 2006.

Check out this forum for more information.

We have made some great friends that we have met on island and still keep in touch with. We travel every Thanksgiving week with friends that we met. They were on the Palm Tree Charters trip with us, our third time!

traveladventurer Jun 7th, 2011 02:42 PM

Wow, you guys are a wealth of information! Brenandg, I always appreciate those useful little tips that guidebooks forget, like where to catch the ferry dock to BVI's and impt details like catching the ferry from Red Hook where you can wait at the bar away from the sweltering sun or rain. I wouldn't have known otherwise!

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